When former Gov. Chris Christie told an audience at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., recently that the Republican Party needs to be “the party that’s perceived to be telling the American people the truth,” it set bemused and sardonic veteran Christie watchers in New Jersey wondering whether the former governor would heed his own advice and fess up to when and how much he knew about the Bridgegate scheme before it exploded in his face eight years ago.
The extent of Christie’s knowledge of and possible involvement in the political payback scheme to reduce access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee and create a horrendous four-day traffic jam in September of 2013 has been a matter of periodic speculation.
When the scheme unraveled and ensnared three top aides to the governor, he insisted he was unaware of it until he read news accounts and acted quickly to fire a deputy chief of staff and sever his connection to one of his trusted political advisers.
Rumors of Christie’s knowledge and possible involvement in the plan floated around the political environment, given a boost by sworn testimony in Federal court that he knew considerably more than he let on.
He was never charged with a crime and he has stuck to his version of events ever since.
His dismissed deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly who, along with Bill Baroni, deputy executive director of the Port authority of New York and New Jersey, was convicted in Federal court and sentenced to prison in 2016. The third co-conspirator David Wildstein, director of Interstate Capital Projects at the Authority at the time, pleaded guilty in return for a sentence of probation and community service.
The convictions of Baroni and Kelly were overturned by the U. S. Supreme Court last May and Wildstein’s guilty plea was vacated.
In its ruling, the court said the lane realignment scheme was a lot of things — arrogant, abuse of power, etc. — but a Federal crime it was not.
Christie’s speech at the Reagan library was part of an emerging strategy to fuel speculation about his entering the 2024 Republican primary for president. He’s teased his future plans in interviews and in his role as a commentator on ABC News, generally in the usual coy “never say never” manner of those who wish to remain on the also mentioned list.
The speech, with its emphasis on truth telling and rejecting extremists, was clearly designed to put even greater distance between Christie and former President Trump.
After the Christie for President boomlet flamed out in two consecutive resounding losses in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary in 2016 — defeats blamed in part on the Bridgegate scandal — he quickly endorsed Trump which, according to the conventional wisdom at the time, was motivated by his desire to join the ticket.
In the intervening years, Christie has become more outspoken in his criticism of Trump, ridiculing the continued insistence that the 2020 election was stolen and, at one point, calling the ex-president’s legal team “a national embarrassment.”
In 2016 Christie’s decision to stand resolutely by Trump was a political calculation which came at little cost. He was the loyal party man who refused to join the chorus of critics and willing to put aside differences in the greater interest of victory.
He reached a similar political calculation this year, concluding that Trump, despite his continued popularity with much of the party’s base, has so deeply alienated critical voting blocs in the country that the party leadership is convinced he cannot win and will turn against him should he try to regain the nomination.
The risk for Christie is minimal. Escaping from the Trump shadow will benefit him, he believes, and his message of candor and rejecting extremes will resonate.
Optimism is growing in the Republican establishment that the 2022 midterm Congressional elections will produce a takeover of the House and Senate; that Biden, at 82 years old, will not seek re-election and that vice president Kamala Harris will be a weak and eminently beatable candidate.
The Republican presidential nomination is therefore all the more valuable and a Trump candidacy risks it all.
It is a widely shared sentiment as evidenced at this relatively early date by the lengthy list of potential candidates — Senators and House members, governors, former Trump Administration figures and business executives.
Christie is betting that the party will turn to someone who is forceful without being overbearing; strong but not menacing; thoughtful rather than impulsive. In other words, Trump without the insufferable and crude arrogance.
In still other words, Christie.
While Bridgegate is assumed to have been a factor in Christie’s failed run in 2016, its impact in 2024, eleven years after the fact, will be minimal.
And, while Christie left office with all time low public approval, the larger obstacle for him will be the seven years out of public life by the time the next presidential election is upon us.
Media attention will be more difficult and standing out from the pack in what may well be a more crowded field than that of 2016 will be a challenge.
The “tell the truth” admonition in the Reagan Library speech may have provoked a sense of irony among New Jersey’s political cognoscenti who remember the dominance of the Bridgegate scandal and the “what did he know and when did he know it” questions swirling around Christie.
Bridgegate is as much a part of the Christie Administration history as the beach chair photo and Superstorm Sandy.
Whether one believes his explanation is a matter of personal judgment, but there were more than a few chuckles heard after Christie’s comments made the rounds.
Carl Golden is a senor contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.